NTOABOMA—Our cousins come in interesting configurations. Often, when one is blessed to share the same village compound with his cousins, such cousins can lead, teach, and provide the kind of support to you that even siblings cannot provide. One of my cousins was of particular interest to me when I was growing up in the little fishing village of Ntoaboma.
Abotsie taught me how to swim, how to fish and how to hunt for small game. He taught me how to set traps, how to weave a fishing net and how to paddle a canoe. Abotsie was almost five years older than I was, but he took me under his wings, like his twin brother, and he, single-handedly, showed me around all village activities and around some of the most secretive spots in the village.
When I was the affectionate age of six, anything Abotsie did, I did, and everywhere he went, I followed. When Abotsie accomplished something, the word went out that he couldn’t have done it without my help. If Abotsie brought home a school of fish, my grandmother would pepper him with praises. I was not left out. My uncles would join in and applaud Abotsie and me. If Abotsie brought home some strange bird, I enjoyed sharing in the praises of catching the damned thing. We were not relied upon, in any form or shape, to provide for any part of the family. This was pure childhood, and in fact, any game we brought home was left on us, or the children to fawn over.
All this to say that Abotsie and I rarely did extraordinary things but when we needed encouragement, we got it. And I, in particular, basked in it. I enjoyed Abotsie’s company and I think he enjoyed mine. I was the only cousin he could rely upon to do the ordinary and the unthinkable at the same time. Consequently, when Abotsie got into trouble, I got into trouble too.
Which brings me to my story. One bright morning, Abotsie fetched me to accompany him on a hunt. Leaving for a hunt that early in the morning was just another way to skip my grandfather’s farm activities. If you stayed around for too long in the morning, my grandfather came up right around 7 AM and fetched anyone he could find and walked them straight to his farm. At six, farm activities were not really compulsory. Abotsie was about ten, and so for him, grandfather demanded that he showed up on the farm. Obviously, this very morning, Abotsie was intent on skipping grandfather’s farm work. He knew he had to abscond early, and who better to abscond with but me?
Abotsie’s thinking was straightforward. We could indulge ourselves in the carefree activities of childhood all around the village and so long as we brought home something that made grandmother proud of us, Abostie (not I) could escape grandfather’s retribution for not showing up on the farm.
By high-noon, right about the time the Sun reached its hottest point, we had played around the beautiful bushes of Ntoaboma’s semi-rain forests so much so that the thought of making sure we returned to the house with something to please grandmother had escaped our childhood memories. We dashed about the bushes chasing one hare after the other, disturbing one termitarium after the next, jumping into the river and swimming from one bank to the next, not realizing how fast time was quickly flying by.
When we needed to report back to great grandmother’s compound, we had nothing. Nothing to show. So Abotsie came up with his own bright—not so bright—idea, as he often did. And follow I did. Abotsie and I made for the outskirts of Ntoaboma, and he retrieved a rabbit from a pen. This was particularly strange. Usually, Abotsie would take me to one of his bush traps, and retrieve a game or two. This was no trap set by Abostie to ensnare a wild rabbit. This was someone’s rabbit cage. A caged rabbit. But follow I did. We took the rabbit to the central market on another long trek to the other side of Ntoaboma, making sure that few saw us en route. The whole time, the rabbit was sleeping. I found it odd. I would learn latter that rabbits are crepuscular, which means that they generally sleep during the day and during the night, but can be counted upon to play at dawn.
Hence, that afternoon was the perfect time to steal a neighbor’s rabbit! Abotsie and I sold the stolen rabbit in Ntoaboma’s central market. The buyer knew who we were, and which house we came from; he knew our parents, he knew our grandparents and certainly, he knew my great grandmother. I believe we sold the damned rabbit for no more than 50 pesewas. You would have to go back as early as the nineties to even understand that Ghana actually had a cedi denomination called the pesewa. To put this into some perspective, fifty pesewas then could buy you twenty balls of kenkey (my favorite) and about two full pots of fried fish.
Now, what’s a pot, let alone a full one? In Ntoaboma, pots are a central part of our cuisine. These pots are made from oven-baked clay and they can be as hard to break as bricks. These pots are used for storing water, for baking, and for cooking and serving food. Some use certain types of clay pots, together with a wooden pestle, to grind tomatoes, pepper, onions, kontomire, and all kinds of herbs and various spices. A welcome ritual in Ntoaboma for visitors, for instance, entails the offer of a cool drink from the baked-in smoke-flavored spring water of a clay pot.
A pot full of Ntoaboma’s best fishes is of the highest culinary appearance and taste. A pot full can feed a family of ten. Twenty balls of kenkey and two pots-full of fried fish was a lot of money. You can feed a whole party of twenty hungry fishermen. That’s how much!
Not knowing what exactly to do with that kind of money, Abotsie again came up with the bright—not so bright—idea to buy twenty balls of kenkey and two pots of fried fish. And so, we went and emptied Daavi’s whole evening kenkey setup for the night. Daavi would usually sell about twenty balls of kenkey and two pots of fried fish every night in Ntoaboma. She had just setup for the evening when we chanced upon her and emptied her small kenkey factory. Daavi would close shop for that very night. Instead of be happy, Daavi became rather curious about the party she had yet to hear about, until Abotsie had made it up and informed her, which was to occur over at my great grandma’s house.
Abotsie didn’t care if Daavi believed our story or not. We imagined that upon such good fortune so early that evening she would shut her shop, get happy and praise her gods—one of them, a humongous Legba right-dab in the middle of her compound, with feathers sticking out of its ears. At six, I was always terrified by the sight of such shrines in the middle of a compound home. My great grandmother too housed one such immaculately decorated shrine on our compound. My great grandmother had assured me that her Legba was friendly, particularly to me—when I did what was right. I quite couldn’t make out the character and nature of Daavi’s Legba, especially at a time when I felt Abotsie and I had broken some natural equilibrium laws (Ma’at).
But no. Rather than be happy, Daavi had other plans. Our curse, in the meantime, was to consume food meant for twenty hungry fishermen. The thing about fishermen is that they can eat, and when they eat, they eat big. Here I was, an Abotsie disciple, at the tender age of six; I had barely caught ten fishes my whole life, I could barely paddle a river canoe let alone an ocean-going vessel, and yet here I was attempting the impossible in Abotsie’s hide-out—his mother’s bedroom. Abotsie’s mother had left for another village on a serious matter the night before.
Why did Abotsie decide to sell the rabbit rather than present it to great grandmother as game? I reckon that Abotsie knew that no one would believe a caged rabbit was a wild one. I think he came to this conclusion after he had already picked up the poor thing. No room to return it. What to do? So why didn’t Abotsie abandon the rabbit and have us return home and face grandfather’s music? Again, I reckon that Abotsie wanted to show the money for selling a rabbit as some great accomplishment. Only, at the market he became aware that the man who bought the rabbit was going to mention the exchange to our grandparents at some point and both parties would quickly realize that the rabbit was stolen. Either way, twenty balls of kenkey and two pots of fried fish was not the correct way to proceed with resolving our new conundrum of too much cash. But children we were, and so we thought like children.
It was out of Abotsie’s mother’s bedroom window that we over-heard Daavi having a chat with my great grandmother. The knowledge of that, of Daavi paying my great grandmother such a visit on short notice, left a bitter taste in my mouth. Certainly, if I dreamed that I could beat twenty hungry fishermen at any game or activity, I was quickly and forcibly demotivated. My appetite quickly waned, and it turned into utter despair as if a huge dam—like the Akosombo dam—had be forced wide open for the water behind its walls to dash out unrestrained into the bottomless abyss. What was left of me was dripping sweat—not from Daavi’s hot kenkey, but from the very idea that my great grandmother now knew that we were thieves. We had stolen something.
Now, the question was how unfriendly great grandmother’s Legba was going to become to me?
I was little, so I was left pretty much unpunished. Abotsie bore the brunt of great grandmother’s sharp words. I felt sorry for Abotsie. I truly did because I felt it was also my fault. By the time my great grandmother understood the whole story (of course I narrated the whole thing from seven o’clock that morning to the time I heard Daavi and great grandmother in complete conversation about a party of fishermen and several balls of kenkey and two pots of fried fish); by the time my great grandmother knew exactly what had transpired, my grandfather had already marched Abotsie to the rabbit owner and paid him double for the stolen rabbit.
Back then in Ntoaboma, once a child of yours was caught stealing, better you paid double for the stolen item or there could be several Legbas speaking and acting from multiple directions. No family kept stolen goods. No family condoned theft. Not in Ntoaboma. Any indication of theft was quickly investigated, and certain amends were made quickly to victims. No one could steal and remain nameless either.
However, suppose Abotsie had the means to quickly sell the stolen rabbit in another village, far far away, where the laws of Ma’at were absent, and suppose that the money he got for it, he was able to keep in another village account. There will be no Daavi, and that conversation between Daavi and my great grandmother would never have occurred.
As far as Ntoaboma is concerned, theft, as you know it, is a function of outside help—whether the opportunity to steal and hide the loot exists elsewhere other than your home. If Ghana had leaders from Ntoaboma, there would be no theft of the national coffers. If Ghana were Ntoaboma, theft will be rare. Corrupt officials could not return to their homes, or to their own families. Corrupt presidents would have to be banished and sent away. Their families would disown them and those families would have to cough-up double what their children had stolen. If Ghana were Ntoaboma, there will be many Daavis, and many great grandmothers and grandfathers who will make sure that their children face the adequate retribution and the direct consequences for corruption, and they will make sure that their children return their loot, two fold to the national coffers.
If Ghana were Ntoaboma, no one could be as corrupt as our leaders without foreign help—without the help of France, without the help of London’s Banks, without Wall Street. No one! But Ghana is not Ntoaboma. And Angola is certainly not like Ntoaboma. This is our curse.